A Tower for a Trum­pet: The great Cana­dian art switcheroo

Sherbrooke Record - - EDITORIAL - Pe­ter Black

One sus­pects that few hum­ble souls of modest means can grasp the stag­ger­ing amounts of money spent on works of art. It’s a phe­nom­e­non eas­ily as mys­ti­fy­ing as the cre­ative abil­ity that im­pels the hu­man be­ing hold­ing the brush, chisel or char­coal. How do you put a value on an im­age cap­tured on a piece of stretched can­vas?

The ar­cane world of big ticket art is in the spot­light in Que­bec lately thanks to an in­trigu­ing lit­tle tango be­tween some of the big­gest play­ers in the sta­te­owned Cana­dian cul­ture world.

We re­fer to the cur­rent scheme on the part of the Na­tional Gallery of Canada to cash in a work by Rus­sian­french modernist Marc Cha­gall, La Tour Eif­fel, and use that money to ac­quire an­other work con­sid­ered to be a “na­tional trea­sure.”

The Cha­gall is sup­posed to go on the auc­tion block at Christie’s in New York City on May 15. The spec­u­la­tion is the 1929 oil could fetch up to $13 mil­lion and pos­si­bly well be­yond, maybe even dou­bling the Na­tional Gallery’s $8 mil­lion an­nual ac­qui­si­tions bud­get.

As of this writ­ing the Na­tional Gallery has not con­firmed what “na­tional trea­sure” it’s will­ing to sac­ri­fice a Cha­gall to ac­quire, one that it says spends most of its time in stor­age. But now ev­ery­body knows, thanks to the gos­sipy art and mu­seum com­mu­nity in Que­bec, the prized paint­ing is French master Jac­ques-louis David’s Saint Jerome Hears the Trum­pets of the Apoc­a­lypse, or Saint Jerome for short.

In his long ca­reer, David, known as Napoleon Bon­a­parte’s artist, pro­duced a spec­tac­u­lar port­fo­lio of epic paint­ings and poignant por­traits, and, we learn, was per­haps the most in­flu­en­tial French pain­ter of his era, with dozens of stu­dents em­u­lat­ing his neo­clas­si­cal style.

The plot thick­ens on this art ca­per when it is re­vealed the owner of Saint Jerome is none other than Que­bec City’s Notre Dame Catholic parish. The parish, in its wis­dom driven by ne­ces­sity, wants to sell the master­piece to raise money to sus­tain its pre­cious her­itage prop­er­ties, notably the spec­tac­u­lar Basil­ica in the old city, and the old­est stone church in Canada, Notre Dame des Vic­toires church in Place d’armes, one of the most vis­ited tourist stops in North Amer­ica.

Saint Jerome is among a large cat­a­logue of art works do­nated to the parish and ul­ti­mately Laval Univer­sity by the Ca­mail sisters in 1922. The sisters were im­mi­grants from France whose grand­fa­ther Gus­tave Mai­land was a suc­cess­ful pain­ter and col­lec­tor. Much of his col­lec­tion came to Que­bec with his grand­daugh­ters and much of that col­lec­tion is stored and cu­rated at the Musée de la Civ­i­liza­tion in the old city.

Saint Jerome is cur­rently on dis­play un­til June at Mon­treal’s Musée des Beaux Arts, where the man­age­ment there is now talk­ing with the Musée de la Civ­i­liza­tion about mount­ing an of­fer for the paint­ing, with or with­out the fed­eral Na­tional Gallery as a part­ner.

Given the prospect to pool the ac­qui­si­tion re­sources of two (or three) ma­jor mu­se­ums, the ques­tion arises why the Na­tional Gallery would want to sell a Cha­gall trea­sure if it doesn’t need to. Not sur­pris­ingly, there is a pe­ti­tion to block the loom­ing auc­tion of La Tour Eif­fel.

The irony of this is that the parish is quite ex­plicit it has no in­ten­tion of sell­ing such a master­piece to for­eign in­ter­ests in an open bid­ding process. Parish of­fi­cials, ac­cord­ing to a report from the Agence QMI, ap­proached the Na­tional Gallery, as well as the mu­se­ums in Que­bec and Mon­treal. How much the parish wants for the paint­ing has not been re­leased.

No mat­ter which mu­seum or mu­se­ums end up “own­ing” the paint­ing, the fact re­mains a valu­able “Cana­dian” work of art stays in the coun­try, the parish gets the funds to main­tain its trea­sured build­ings in per­pe­tu­ity, and your av­er­age cit­i­zen gets a chance to ap­pre­ci­ate a work from the eye and hand of the man who painted Napoleon.

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